Cruel Beautiful World
An exuberant electro-punk outfit called Death Spells has a song called “Why Is Love So Disastrous?” It’s not the first adjective you think about when you consider the many possibilities of love; usually it’s the warm, heart-emoji’d Valentine’s Day love that would pop into someone’s head when hearing the term.
However, in Caroline Leavitt’s quiet but devastating novel, CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD, two sisters encounter the disastrous side of love, along with the more conventional side where everlasting devotion, respect and good come in the same love package. Set against the backdrop of the tumultuous ’60s, and against the twin pillars of the back-to-the-earth movement and the Manson Family’s movement of hate and control masquerading as love and community, Lucy and Charlotte encounter a world where both the positive and negative aspects of their experiences exemplify the crazed whirlwind that love can bring.
Lucy is a young, spirited, fresh-faced teen, chomping at the bit to get out of her small town and see the world. When she begins an affair with a much older teacher, a cool long-haired liberal who eventually gets fired from the district for his progressive ways, she decides to take up his eventual offer to run away with him. Since she’s underage (only 16), her paramour is not interested in their being found, and they end up in a rustic rural town where no one knows who they are. He keeps Lucy in hiding, encouraging her to write while she has the time, a talent that is just starting to show its head. However, she leaves behind her adoptive mom and a sister for whom responsibility is a very serious pursuit.
"CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD is a masterwork, a book that is so well-crafted and emotionally resonant that the reader will be loathe to hand it off to the next willing reader until he or she has read it over again."
As Charlotte heads to a full scholarship at Brandeis to become a vet, she continues to search for clues about her sister’s whereabouts. Iris, the adoptive mother, is distraught and continues as well to encourage Charlotte to keep looking for Lucy. Lucy sends a postcard that she’s okay but has no chance to make a call to speak with them until she meets another older man who gives her the sense that she should be moving on. The situation reaches a crisis condition, and she plans a getaway. However, her hippie “husband” (they wear fake rings) has other plans, and things pretzel into a most tragic twist.
This book sneaks up on you. The details of the plot are small and confined, not tragicomic or melodramatic. Instead, these characters make choices in their lives that affect the others around them and give them a kaleidoscope of complications that take them to places they couldn’t have foreseen themselves traveling. Each of them finds love, but it’s complicated, controlling, fearful, exhilarating, releasing and triumphant, all at the same time. Leavitt very deftly builds the suspense of the story, and shakes the ground beneath your feet with the powerful and unexpected imagery she works into her tale.
I couldn’t put this book down. These flawed but fascinating characters easily could have been dumped into a more conventional thriller-type storyline, but instead Leavitt intricately weaves a spiderweb of consequences that drives these so-human-you-can-almost-touch-them people into unique and emotionally resonant places. CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD is just that --- a combination of all the ways in which the world can tear you down or build you up when you think you have finally found the ultimate salvation of true love. As in life itself, there is no way to know where it’s going to go, and so Leavitt takes us on a powerful and moving trip to a place where everyone eventually goes and from which we can all learn something, no matter how many other relationships you’ve been in.
The backdrop of the ’60s is used ever so lightly to exemplify the ways in which hope and progress can be disruptive and dangerous, but compelling and seductive as well. As the Manson Girls experience their hero worship in the culture at large, the sisters here (really, all the characters) find that that kind of obsessive devotion to any one person or thing comes with its own warnings --- and, as the story continues, the reader learns as much about those elements as the characters do.
CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD is a masterwork, a book that is so well-crafted and emotionally resonant that the reader will be loathe to hand it off to the next willing reader until he or she has read it over again. Congratulations to Caroline Leavitt for an upstanding and inspiring literary masterpiece.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on October 4, 2016